"Lordy, but I hate giving speeches," Alston muttered under her breath as she stepped down from the podium, on the steps of the Pacific National Bank at the head of Main Street.
"Tell me about it," Jared said, clapping. The crowd was too, or cheering.
"Maybe that's why you always give the same one, Marian," Ian said out of the side of his mouth, grinning as he applauded. "Thank you for your support. We'll get the job done come what may. Goodbye."
"Oh, I don't know," Doreen said. "Back in Alba, she threatened defaulters with being crucified, keelhauled and having their ice-cream ration reduced."
"To hell with the lot of you," Marian said, seating herself and looking suitably grave. She cocked an eye at the sky; it was a bright chilly morning, but there was a hint of mare's-tail cloud in the northwest, and the wind was about seven knots, brisk up from the harbor.
Prelate Gomez rose to conduct the blessing service. Hats went off among the dense crowd that packed Main Street Square and the streets leading off it; Expeditionary Regiment marines and townsfolk mingled. Alston kept her hat on her knees and listened respectfully. Gomez bore the red robes with dignity, despite looking to be exactly what he was, the stocky middle-aged son of a Portugese fisherman from New Bedford. The Sun People among the Regiment and ships' crews had had their ritual yesterday, sacrificing a couple of sheep to Sky Father and the Horned Man and the Lady of the Horses... and at least you get to eat the sheep, she thought.
Swindapa had led the Fiernan Bohulugi service last night, she being
the senior of the Star Blood on the island at present. Which makes her,
technically, a Grandmother. And wasn't that an odd thought. Alston had
attended that, it being in the family and she being an adoptive Fiernan
"War is an evil," Gomez was saying. "But in this fallen world, we are
often forced to a choice between a lesser evil and a greater. By sending
us here to this earlier time, God has given us a great responsibility
and put us in a position to do great good. Unfortunately, that also
means that we have the opportunity to do great evil
"To protect our people, our children, our nation, from such a threat justifies this war. But there is another and greater reason for it. Walker is one of ours. When he spreads death, suffering, slavery, among the peoples here in our exile home, we bear part of the responsibility."
Alston winced inwardly. I should have anticipated what Walker was up to. She'd suspected Walker had something up his sleeve, but there hadn't been any proof... and he'd struck without warning, taking the Yare and heading out. Cunningly, too, using Lisketter as a decoy to give himself time.
"And since Walker is at least partially our sin, so we must pay the price of his supression. Let us pray to Almighty God, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, that He does not require a payment more than we can bear. For whatever the price may be, bear it we must."
And on that cheerful note, she thought, bowing her head. Alston
hadn't prayed since she was about fourteen, but whatever your opinion of
his beliefs, Gomez was a man to respect. They weren't exactly friends
The silent moment ended with a trumpet and bugle call. The crowds cleared the street, and the men and women of the Marines and the crews formed up to march down to the docks.
Alston picked up her cap and drew a deep breath. "Let's go," she said.
"Yeah, boss, this is more like it," Bill Cuddy said, holding out his winecup for a refill.
A slave-girl in gold-studded sandals and a filmy kilt of Egyptian linen knelt gracefully and poured from a long-stemmed glass jar.
William Walker leaned back in the great terracotta hot-tub set in the floor of the bathing suite and smiled at his machinist, enjoying the sensation of steaming water soaking the knots of a day's hunting out of his muscles.
"What did I promise you back in Nantucket, Cuddy-my-main-man?" he chuckled. Master of Engineers, technically. "Gold, girls, all the comforts of home, within reason."
The new house
"Yeah, you came through, all right, boss," Cuddy said. "Funny how much easier this was than Alba."
"Lot more organization to start with," Walker pointed out.
Although that has its drawbacks, he thought. His glance went to the
tall french doors. He couldn't see much out of them, the best they could
do for window glass still being sort of wavy and opaque, and it was
raining outside on the pool terrace anyway. If it had been clear and
he'd gone outside to the swimming pool
He really shouldn't have tried to have me offed back in Mycenae, he thought. Of course, the guy was sick these days himself... courtesy of dear, dear Alice Hong. God, but it pays to have a doctor on your staff. Among other things, there were a lot of poisons the locals hadn't figured out yet either. And once Wannax Menelaos was gone, Walker knew exactly who the High King was going to appoint in his place. Odd. I expected them to be brothers. More like third cousins once removed.
But on the whole, operating in civilization of a sort was a hell of a lot easier than cobbling together a kingdom out of the Sun People tribes up in Alba. There was a lot the Achaeans didn't know, but at least he didn't have to teach them everything. He smiled at the vista beyond the windows; he'd left plenty of room for expansion later.
Something imposing, but not ostentatious, he thought. Something along the lines of San Simeon.
"Easy to get used to this sort of thing," Cuddy said, raising his cup in a toast. He looked aside at the girl, who was kneeling, sitting back on her heels with eyes cast down. "Like, getting laid whenever you want, for example."
Walker nodded; he didn't mind that himself, although he wasn't the sort of three-ball man that some of his American followers were. Rodriguez, for instance, and even he'd slowed down a bit now that it was no longer a big deal.
"You deserve it," Walker said sincerely. "You've got the machine-shops working fine now."
Cuddy shrugged and beckoned. The girl came over and knelt behind him, kneading his shoulders.
"The first part was the hardest," he said, tilting his head back
against her breasts. "Like, one makes two, two make four, you know?
Lathes make lathes. Look, though, boss
"It's the results that matter."
"Surprised you sent Danny Rodriguez off to Sicily all on his lonesome," Cuddy went on.
"Oh, I put the fear of God into him well enough," Walker said. "Besides, Odikweos will keep him in line... and I can rely on Odikweos to see that our great good friend and liege-lord Agamemnon doesn't hear about exactly how many musketeers we're training over there. Christ, but these people don't have much idea of spook-work. Odikweos keeps his eyes and ears open, but he's the exception."
"Yeah, well, you got Odi the viceroy's job," Cuddy said. "He owes you, it's a fucking gold-mine."
"Gratitude is strong; the bottom line's even stronger," Walker
chuckled and finished his own wine. "He's raising a regiment of
"He's keeping the sulfur and asphalt coming, too," Cuddy said with satisfaction. "And the other stuff."
Sulfur for gunpowder, of course. Sicily was rich in brimstone ores. The asphalt wells near Ragusa-that-wasn't were extremely handy too; you could distill something roughly like kerosine out of it without much trouble, and the residue had a dozen uses, for instance waterproofing these baths so the adobe brick didn't turn to mudpie. They were even paving some crucial stretches of road with it. Plus the slaves, timber and grain that kept other projects going.
"Yeah, that's going pretty well," Walker said. "Pretty soon we'll be ready to start whipping on the neighbors again."
Cuddy looked at him. "Why bother, boss? Shit, we're practically
running this place
"Two reasons, Cuddy. First, because I say so." He met the other man's
eyes until they dropped. "Second," he went on more genially, "we've got
to hit while the hitting's easy. We're not exactly building tanks and
helicopter gunships here. Anything we're doing, the locals can learn
Cuddy nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, when you put it that way..."
"Besides, it's fun. Booze and cooze are all right, but you can only party so long."
"Ah, try me on that one, boss!" They laughed. "Yeah, I see what you mean, though. Sort of a challenge."
Walker went on: "Anyway, I'm off. Alice has something really special planned for those two that came in with the last shipment, and I've got a starring role. Acupuncture, you might say."
Cuddy made a slight face. "Whatever, boss."
Walker laughed again as he heaved himself out of the tub. Water hissed over the indigo and white of the tiles, and the girls hastened over to rub him down with linen towels and dress him in a long embroidered robe imported from the Hittite country.
"Oh, she's a complete nutcase, I know," Walker said. "But it can be sort of diverting, for a change. Hasta la vista."
And the screams and bodies keep the staff really on their toes, he thought, glancing back over his shoulder as he left. Two of the serving-maids were sliding into the tub, minus the kilts and sandals, giggling and squealing.
Guards brought their muskets to present-arms with a slap of hands on wood and crash of hobnailed heels on stone. Walker nodded back with lordly politness.
"Philowergos, Eumenes," he said.
He'd seen a movie once, when he was young... Battleship Ptomekin, that was it, about a mutiny in the Russian navy, sailors given rotten food and such. He still remembered his own reaction of contempt; what sort of doink shorted the hired muscle? He knew enough to spread around the vig generously, and that included ego-stroking. The thought warmed him as he walked past into the main body of the mansion.
Glass windows kept it reasonably bright even on an overcast winter's
day, and fires boomed in proper fireplaces with chimneys at either end;
the floor was honeycomb yellow marble from a nearby quarry. He'd kept
the traditional high seat on the southern wall, but added tables and
chairs to make it more like a formal dining room. A curving staircase
lead to the second floor and Hong's quarters
No mistaking Hong's door, dark oiled beechwood with silver bolts through it, and the mask of a skull in a golden setting above it with a candle burning behind the empty eyes. He walked through, past a sitting room with creditable imitations of couches and loungers, a couple of beautiful local woven rugs in front of the cheerful fireplace, and into the bedroom.
"You're late," Hong said. "But I haven't really started. Just sort of establishing the scenario."
Despotnia Algeos, the locals were calling her: the Lady of Pain, avatar of Hekate, with powers over life and death. Some of the noble Achaean ladies were incorporating her suggestions in their rites. She was dressed in black gold-stamped sandals, a silver domino skull-mask and an ivory-hilted riding crop thonged to one wrist, and a few straps and buckles elsewhere; he had to admit it all looked quite dramatic.
He didn't think the subjects today were concerned with niceties like that at the moment, and besides, they were both from Sicily and didn't have a word of Greek. One was a thirtysomething Sophia Loren type, spreadeagled naked to the wall and bound with to the built-in ties at wrists, ankles and waist. Her mouth was gagged with a leather ball tied with a strap around her head, and tears and spittle ran down her face and heavy breasts. There were thin silver needles through her earlobes, the webs between finger and thumb, and a few other parts of her body, and little hand-carved ivory alligator clips on her nipples; leather plugs filled other orifices. Thread-thin trickles of blood went over her skin, disturbed by shuddering twitches.
The other on the bed was about fourteen, just pubescent, with small pert breasts and a black fuzz of hair between her legs. He had a good view of that, because she was secured to the four-poster with a net of straps and buckles that held her arms stretched taut above her head and her legs spread wide and hauled back. There was a creaking and sobbing as she struggled.
Trays of polished instruments stood on wheeled trays above the gleaming tile of the floor; the rugs and tapestries were rolled up and safely elsewhere, leaving the half-done murals bare... and Hong had drawn those herself. She wasn't at all bad at that, sort of an Alphonse Mucha Art-Noveau style, but with subjects the Czech had never gone for. A bed of glowing coals burned in the fireplace, where other blades and spikes heated to cherry-red. Walker went to a sideboard and poured wine into an elegant shallow local cup, sipping. Too sweet, but not bad for all that.
Hong smiled at him sidelong, licked her lips and let the tip of the springy whip trail down from the bound girl's mouth, slowly drawing it across sweat-slick skin and down to her crotch, tickling with the tuft of feathers. Then her hand moved with blurring speed and there was a sharp double slapping sound. Thin red welts appeared on the inside of her victim's spread thighs.
Dr. Alice Hong gave a long shivering sigh at the squeal of helpless pain. "Just the right reception for visiting princesses, don't you think?" she said. The whip flicked again, a sharp expert motion that brought a heaving convulsion. "Oh, does that smart, little princess? Shall I kiss it better?"
Actually they're the wife and daughter of an important rebel chief,
Walker thought, watching her work and drinking again. An important dead
chief; the rest of his relations were digging sulfur, hauling stone, and
building roads in the new Achaean fiefs of Sicily
Hong chuckled as she watched him. "Impatient as always, Will," she said, reaching out to tickle him strategically with the feathers. "But all right, let's start with the traditional defloration... or would you rather give momma there something to remember...?"
"Decisions, decisions," Walker laughed thickly. "I think... yes, youth should be served first."
He walked towards the bed.
"Reveille, reveille, heave out, trice up, lash and stow, lash and stow! Here I come, with a sharp knife and a clear conscience!"
Alston opened her eyes as the brass bell rang. The big stern cabin of the Joshua Chamberlain was filled with light from the inward-slanting windows that formed a curving wall along the rear of the ship. Light from the port side, yellow from the new sun and flickering as it reflected off the ship's wake. The clipper-frigate creaked and groaned around her, the endless speaking of a big wood-built ship; water slapped at the hull, and the stiff breeze hummed through the rigging. The sound and the long rolling pitch of the ship beneath filled her with a quiet happiness.
Swindapa stirred. "More sensible," she murmured into Alston's ear.
Above them they could hear the crisp Sir! Crew turned out! of the master-at-arms reporting to the officer of the deck.
The commodore chuckled. Well, yes, she thought. The first voyage together they'd kept to the old no-fraternization-on-board rule, but the new NCMJ allowed married couples and registered domestic partners to bunk together at sea.
The ship resounded to a thunder of feet as the crew and the
hundred-odd Marine troopers aboard raced up the gangways to stow their
tight-rolled hammocks along the gunwales of the ship. Then another
thunder, this time as water gushed from the pumps onto the immaculate
deck planking, and hollystones and 'bears'
"Time to be up and doing," Alston said.
"You Eagle People
Alston paused for a second to admire the sleek graceful nakedness that smiled at her. Eight years and I still get that catch in my throat, she thought happily, then sighed and began her morning stretches. Those got just a little more difficult every year. The Captain's cabin on the Liberator class had room enough, at least; a curved settle at the rear, beneath the windows, with storage below the seats; an oval table forward of that, with chairs on the opposite side; bunk, desk, cupboards and hanging lantern. With an eye to impressing foreign potentates, it also had panneling of curly maple, polished and stained to bring out the swirling grain of the wood and strips of carving along the edges of the yard-wide planks. Even more likely to impress were the two long cast-steel twelve-pounder rifles that served as stern-chasers, bowsed tight in place with double lashings.
Gunnery practice again today, Alston decided, as she buttoned her jacket and adjusted the billed baseball-style cap with fouled anchor that was Guard regulation on her close-cropped head. It was a damned nuisance with the ship crowded with passengers, but you had to find some time to get the hands used to their lethal tools.
They walked along the central corridor of the poop to the officer's wardroom, the hollystones loud on the quarterdeck above.
"Good morning, gentlemen, ladies," she said.
The wardroom table was crowded, since the two Hollards and some of their Marine officers as a matter of course. Barely two weeks out of home-port and two days from the Islander outpost on Barbados they still had abundant fresh provisions, and the table also bore platters of bacon, eggs, hot biscuits. And coffee...
Not particularly good coffee, Alston thought, although the smell was as appetizing as ever.
She added a filleted flying-fish to her plate, enjoying the smooth buttery taste; several dozen had landed on the deck and made a short trip to the cooks. The coffee was harsh-tasting to anyone who could remember the twentieth; it was the offspring of ornamental coffee plants, all the Islanders had had available after the Event. Better than no coffee at all, by a long shot. Which was what they'd had to put up with for long years afterwards, as those first seedlings planted out on Carribean islands struggled to maturity. It was still a luxury.
"Damn, but I missed this, the first few years after the Event," she said, sighing, after the first sip.
"It's like chewing nettles," Swindapa replied. "An acquired taste, but why bother to acquire it?"
"Could be worse," Alston said, looking through the night-watch
reports presented to her
"I drank decaf," Colonel Hollard said, lifting his cup of sassafras.
Alston's mouth quirked slightly, and she raised an eyebrow. Now, that's a little startling. The thought of decaf coffee didn't suit someone Hollard's age, somehow. Comforting, though. She'd be handing over to Hollard's generation in time; it was nice to be reminded that they could remember America, the 20th, as well. And they'd be around for another forty or fifty years, shaping things. There were times she worried that they'd disappear into this era like a drop of ink in a bucket of milk, not enough of them to season it...
A middie approached the table and saluted. "Good morning, Captain," she said. "The officer of the deck reports the approach of eight bells. Permission to strike eight bells on time."
"My compliments to Mr. Jenkins, and let him make it so," Alston said.
Swindapa stood with her, only a slight glance out of the corner of her eyes telling her partner what she thought of the Eagle People rituals of military courtesy. It's still a bit of a game to her, Alston mused. She performed it faultlessly, even acknowledged the reasons for it but... deep down, I don't think she takes it all that seriously. Odd. The Sun People recruits in the Nantucket military were a far more temperamental and willful bunch than the Fiernans, but when they finally grasped the concept of discipline they often embraced it with a convert's fanatacism.
There were times when she thought Swindapa's people were just too damned mentally healthy for their own good.
Up the companionway to the brightness of the deck, the sun now well clear of the horizon.
"Captain on deck!"
"As you were," she replied; she was acting as captain-aboard of the Chamberlain, as well as Commodore of the flotilla; the Guard was still short of experienced ship commanders. Conning a square-rigger was different from running one of the big schooners that had been the first wave of construction, too.
"Fair-weather sailin'," Alston went on.
She looked up; not a cloud in the sky. The deck of the Joshua Chamberlain tilted only a little, and she took the long blue swells with a smooth rocking-horse motion under all plain sail, three pyramids of white flax canvas reaching up her masts, a hundred and twenty feet on the main. The sails were braced to starboard, and the ship was moving at nearly right-angles to the wind. We should catch the trades in another few days, she thought, reaching out to touch the rail. Then they could make better speed, with the wind abaft the beam.
"A pity to make so many loud noises," Swindapa murmured. "Disturbing the air, making the children cry..."
"You like it just as much as they do," Alson replied, equally sotto voice, and the Fiernan grinned.
The Chamberlain was lead ship in the Islander flotilla; behind her came the Lincoln; then the Eagle, the main transport, and the schooners Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. They were in line astern, each separated by a thousand yards like beads on an arrow-straight line ruled across the blue of the ocean in cream-white wakes, their fresh canvas snow-white against the dark gray-blue of the hulls.
As a training ship Eagle had been built for carrying people, not cargo; there had even been proposals to break the big eighteen-hundred-tonner up for her metal, on the theory that she was inefficient compared to wooden craft with proper holds.
Efficient as a troop-transport, though, she thought, watching the long hull with the red diagonal slash of the Coast Guard.
"Signal," she said aloud.
Swindapa took out her pad; the ships all had radios salvaged from pleasure-craft. Chamberlain's was in a low deckhouse forward of the wheels.
"To Eagle; prepare to drop targets." Those would be rafts of empty barrels that had held salt provisions, lashed together with poles and flags standing up. "Ships will pass at four hundred yards and then come about," she said. To the First Lieutenant: "Mr. Jenkins, sound to quarters. Fighting sail only."
"Yes ma'am," he said crisply, and turned.
Orders flowed out and a drum began to beat, a long hoarse roll of sound. Marines crowded out of the way as parties dashed to rig boarding nets along the sides and splinter-netting overhead. Crewfolk ran up the ratlines, and the ship came more nearly upright as the topsails were clewed up and sea-furled. From below came the sound of partitions being knocked down and struck into the hold. Alston stood quietly, glancing at her watch. Better, she thought, as the bosun reported to the quarterdeck, still panting a little. Ten minutes forty-seven seconds.
Eagle had been making more sail, pulling ahead of the other ships. Alston felt her lips quirking in a smile as she passed in a sunlit burst of spray, sharp bows slicing the swells. Objectively the new clipper-frigates were even prettier ships, with the same sharp bows and without the clutter of deckhouses on the quarter and around the mainmast, but there was a heartcatching beauty to the sight...
And I commanded her so long, she thought. Over ten years now, if you counted the time before the Event. That was the first ship to circumnavigate this Bronze Age world, too. I've seen and done a lot on that deck. And it was where she'd used a pair of bolt-cutters to take the collar off Swindapa...
"Mr. Jenkins, bring us two points to starboard, if you please. And trim, by all means."
"Yes ma'am." A turn: "Helm, two points, thus, thus." The two hands standing on the bench-like platforms beside the double wheels heaved at the spokes with a precise economical motion, their eyes on the compass binnacle before them.
Jenkin's speaking-trumpet went up. "Haul starboard, handsomely starboard, there!"
The rafts splashed free ahead of them, and Eagle ran forward a half-mile to be out of harm's way, heaving to broadside-on to the other ships. Alston and Swindapa walked forward on the quarterdeck, down the steep wooden steps to the main deck and then down a level further. The main gundeck of the Chamberlain was a single great room now, an oval space six times longer than it was wide, tapering to the narrow shape of the bows, lit only by the crosshatched light of the grating-hatchcovers above. It smelled of fresh wood still, and underlying that brimstone, salt water, sweat and the cooking-scents of breakfast. Twelve twenty-four-pounder cannon crouched on either side, shaped like soda-bottles and enmeshed in their cradle of carriage, lines, pulleys and tackle.
Pity we can't do many rifled guns yet, Alston thought. Leaton's Bessemer steel just didn't have the consistent quality needed for those pressures, though; and the thought of a burst gun on these crowded decks was enough to make her shudder. The sight had been bad enough in a testing-pit. There were the chasers, and a few rifled siege-cannon struck down in the holds for the Expeditionary Force to use on land, each one turned out with exquisite care and tested at double-charge, but most of the Republic's guns were smoothbores.
The gun-teams waited, crouching, hands ready on handspikes, tackle, swabbers, rammers; many were stripped to the waist and had kerchiefs tied around their heads as they prepared for the shattering physical effort of serving the guns.
Or stripped to the waist except for bras, Alston thought; it wasn't quite the same as down there as the gundeck of the Constitution or Cheasapeake in the War of 1812. One young woman grinned at her for a second, then turned back and spat on her hands as she braced ready. Flat muscle rippled across her arms and back...
"Target's coming on to bear, ma'am," a middie said from his position near one division of the guns.
"Very well. Out tompions!"
The red-painted wooden plugs at the muzzles of the guns were whipped out.
"Run out your guns!"
A long drumming, squealing thunder of carriages across decks as the crews threw themselves on the ropes and twelve sets of two-ton weight ground across the oaken planking; sunlight pierced the gloom of the gundeck in rectangular shafts as the gunports rose.
"Fire as you bear!"
Alston took two steps up the companionway ladder; that gave her a good view of the target four hundred-odd yards to starboard as well as the gun-deck, with the heel of the ship pitching the rail down. "Time this, 'dapa," she said, and Lieutenant-Commander Swindapa Alston-Kurlelo put on a grave official face and took out her stopwatch.
The gun-captain of Number One, Starboard, spun the elevating screw and heaved at the handspike that moved the rear of the gun, adjusting it by increments as the crew hauled likewise on the tackle that moved the muzzle. He glared over the barrel of his charge a final instant, then:
"Clear!" he bellowed, giving the lanyard of the friction-primer a swift hard jerk.
A long jet of flame-shot smoke lanced out from the Chamberlain's side. Her eye caught the fall of shot exactly, a grooved splash in the surface of the water ten yards short of the target, and then another behond it as the ball ricochetted like a flung stone.
Not bad, she thought, smiling a little behind the expressionless mask of her face. That would have gone aboard a ship, right enough.
The gun-captain pivoted like a matador, arching his body over the massive steel bulk of the gun as it leapt backwards up the inclined plane of its carriage with an angry squeal of wooden brake-shoes. As it stopped the rest of the crew went into a precisely-choreographed dance around it; the swabber's pole with its wet sponges was thrust down the muzzle in a long shhhhhhusssh of steam, quenching any sparks from the first round left in the barrel. Then the next cartridge came up, a dusty-looking linen cylinder. The rammer thrust it down, and the wad and twenty-four pound cast iron ball followed, with another wad to keep it in place, and the gun-captain was at the handspike even as the rammer jumped back out of the way.
All this among the enormous bellowing roar of the other cannon as the rippling broadside went down the gundeck, the choking sulphur-tinted smoke that coiled across the deck and turned it into a thing of fog and menacing shapes. Colums of water gouted all around the target, and fragments of plank whipped skyward amid spray and froth as direct hits stove in barrels. Two hundred and eighty-eight pounds of high-velocity iron lashed the sea around the target with stunning violence.
The first gun fired again. "Two minutes ten seconds!" Swindapa shouted into her ear. A good many of the crew had wads of cloth stuffed into both of theirs; enough of this could damage your hearing.
Alston nodded. Seventy seconds to reload; not bad at all, although the crews were still fresh. Her eye sought the next target...
"Sail-trimmers!" she called, standing back from the stairs.
The crews shrank as one from each gun ran up the ladders to the deck,
taking their place in the sailing crew. Another period of shattering
sound, heaving concentrated effort by the crews, their bodies running
with sweat at the physical exertion and the heat the guns were throwing
off into the confined space of the gun-deck. The guns were jumping back
harder as the steel soaked up heat, and she could hear grunts and harsh
panting at the brutal labor of wearing them around. This time only half
the second broadside could bear on the target, and there was a
concentrated move for the scuttlebuts
Alston waited until the last second before she called: "Boarders! Borders to their stations!"
The gun-crews shrank again as another thirty left them; these grabbed weapons out of the racks around the masts and along bare sections of hull as they ran for the companionways. Muskets, shotguns, pistols, cartridge-boxes, cutlasses, boarding-axes and half-pikes gleamed in the rush. The result looked remarkably piratical, half-naked bodies bristling with flintlocks and edged steel.
And for a wonder, nobody's spearing anyone in the ass, she thought with satisfaction. That had happened once or twice, earlier. Middies oversaw four guns each, and they were running full-tilt from one to the next, correcting aim and heaving on lines themselves. For a wonder, nobody got their foot run over either. That could cause really nasty injuries, but the only way to learn to do this fast was to do it fast, exhaustion or no. You had to accept a certain percentage of training accidents if the training was realistic.
"One minute fifty-six seconds," Swindapa said.
Not so good, Alston thought; and the crews were collapsed around their weapons, panting like hound-dogs on a hot day; she could hear someone retching dryly.
"Master-gunner, house your guns and secure the deck," she said into a silence that seemed to echo in the aftermath of the cannons' roar. She lifted her voice a little, waiting until the sail-trimmers and boarders had returned to their stations. "Not bad, boys and girls. But it could be better."
The cheer that followed had an element of groan in it, but there were plenty of smiles as the guns were swabbed out, loaded once more, and the tompions slapped home. First Lieutenant Jenkins was grinning as he saluted her return to the quarterdeck, looking at his own watch.
"We beat Lincoln by a good ten seconds, ma'am," he said.
Alston nodded, smiling a little herself. Victor Ortiz had the other frigate, and he'd be fit to be tied; she knew he'd had the crew weight-training at intervals, trying to beat her time.
"There's such a thing as overstraining," she said. The shriller bark of the eight-pounders and carronades the schooners carried ended the exercise, leaving only a fogbank of powder-smoke drifting away to the eastward as it dispersed.
Marian Alston took a deep breath of the clean air and looked at her watch again. "We'll heave to," she said. "Signal 'Captains repair to Eagle for a working lunch at 13:00 hours', Ms. Swindapa. Mr. Jenkins, we'll rig pumps, and have the masthead and a rowing lookout check for sharks."
Lines formed for the salt-water showers after the sails were struck; the gun-crews' hands and faces were smut-dark with blackpowder residues, in startling contrast to the pale skin beneath. Luckily Fiernans didn't have a nudity taboo, and the Americans and even the rather prudish Sun People had gotten used to it. Body-modesty simply didn't go with the sort of cramped quarters a mixed force in the field or at sea had to put up with; they'd learned that shortly after the Event. After a while it simply wasn't much of a deal.
In fact, she thought, by now I feel much more self-conscious about being the only darkie among the bukra.
By an odd quirk of fate she'd been stranded in the Bronze Age along with a piece of American real estate where blacks were rare, no more than a few hundred in all. Rare, and even more so proportionately with the influx of Alban immigrants; language and culture changed, but physical type was evidently much more constant. Sun People and Earth Folk alike looked very much like their Anglo-Saxon descendants.
The water felt cold on her bare skin as she turned under the pump; she took the bar of gritty ration-issue lye soap from Colonel Hollard with a polite nod, lathered herself thoroughly and stepped up to the rail, handing the bar over to the next in line.
"All clear!" the lookout said; the ones in the longboat rowing around the ship carried barbed harpoons and rifle-muskets.
Alston poised, then leapt, jacknifing and taking the fifteen-foot drop in a knifing dive. That carried her deep into water that closed around her like a living blue jewel; she turned and looked up, watching as Swindapa slid down towards her with her long yellow hair streaming out behind like a banner. They touched for a moment fifteen feet down, kissed in the discreet silence of the ocean, then kicked for the surface that hung over them like a rippling mirror. She tossed her head as she surfaced, watching as wooping crewfolk followed her off into the water.
Hollard scooped up his sister and threw her in, then followed in a clean dive. For moments it rained soapy Guard crews and Marines; many of them were cannonballing and landing with appalling splashes. She made a mental note to have more swimming classes. It was part of Islander schooling these days, but a lot of Albans could hardly keep afloat at all, and even the best of them didn't know anything but a clumsy, thrashing breast-stroke.
Swindapa followed her as she made for the stern at an easy crawl, matching her stroke for stroke. It was surprisingly difficult to get enough exercise on shipboard, if you were an officer. She made a practice of taking a dozen lengths of the hull when she could, or putting in a spell in the morning on the pumps, as well as going aloft. The warm Carribean water caressed her, a feeling of tingling life bouying her. And if there were shark and barracuda in these waters, that was part of life too.
"On deck, there! Sail ho!"
Alston looked up sharply, catching the hail from the masthead at the second shout.
"Damn," she said midly, spitting out salt water and stroking swiftly to the ship's side. Ropes hung over the railing; she swarmed up one hand-over-hand, then directly up the ratlines to the mainmast top.
"Where away?" she said to the lookout, dripping on the hot planks of the triangular platform.
"East by south, ma'am," the lookout said; he had a faint but definite Sun People accent, harsh and choppy under the nasal twang of Islander English. "Ship-rigged or a barque, I'd guess."
Alston took his heavy binoculars and focused them. White shapes of sail, a three-master, barque-rigged like the Eagle but much smaller...
"On deck, there! Hands to stations, Mr. Jenkins, and notify the flotilla!" she called down. "And have my uniform sent up, if you please."
It came up, and Swindapa with it. They shared a towel and dressed, disregarding the slight stickiness of salt on their skins; that went with voyaging, in between landfalls where fresh water was abundant enough to waste on washing. She put the sails in her binoculars again; the strange ship was flying the Stars and Stripes that the Republic of Nantucket had kept as the national banner, but that meant little. Details of construction meant more, and she ran through a mental file of everything the Islanders had built in the past eight years, and what they knew of the Tartessian and Alban yards.
"One of ours, I think," she said after a moment. "Let's get down and ready to hail her."
You had to be wary, in a world with the likes of King Isketerol and William Walker loose in it.
"You haven't been sitting and letting the grass grow under your arse in your new kingdom, by the gods," Odikweos said.
He held out his hand and looked around at stone-built wharves with
iron bollards, streets, buildings, the ribs of ships on the slipways.
Nothing here but a fishing-village a few years ago, and now it was a
"A lazy man has no luck," Walker replied, taking the offered palm.
The American gesture had become quite the fashion. The other man's grip was like a mechanical grab inside a glove of hard-cured ham.
Hammers, hooves, wheels and voices made a surf-roar of noise throughout the little town, full of pungent smells of sweat and dust and manure baking under the hot June sun. Foreign ships were tied up here too, looking tiny beside the craft Walker had built. A file of slaves carried elephant tusks ashore from an Egyptian merchantman, baled tapestries from one out of Byblos, purple-dyed cloth and big clay jugs of wine from Ugarit, oxhide-shaped copper ingots from a Cypriot trader. So much wealth so close to the sea would have been an irresistible lure for raiders in the old days, but a fortress of earthwork and stone stood at the edge of the harbor, cannon snouting from embrasures along its thick sloping walls. And armed schooners had met the Ithakan's ship half a day's sailing away, out on patrol.
A groom brought a mount forward, one of the half-bred sons of the sixteen-hand quarterhorse Walker rode himself. The Achaean put a foot in a stirrup and swarmed aboard, competently if not with the ease a lifetime's practice had given Walker. He wore trousers of fine kidskin as well as his tunic; those had become fashionable too, among younger nobles flexible enough to consider a saddle as dignified as a chariot.
The two vassal kings rode north up the valley of the Eurotas, with their escorts clattering behind and outriders ahead with a harsh, repeated cry of way, make way! Odikweos stretched his eyes, taking everything in, including the way Walker kept half an eye on on his reactions.
The road itself was a novelty. Instead of the gravelled dirt common in the lands under Mycenae's rule it was a smoothly bevelled curve of Sicilian asphalt mixed with crushed rock, twenty feet across, lavishly ditched, with young plane trees planted in rows on either side.
"How far north does this run?" Odikweos asked.
"All the way up the valley, and three-quarters of the way to Mycenae," Walker said proudly. "We'll have it through to there by the fall rains."
"Through the mountains? In only three years?"
Walker nodded. "Gunpowder is a tool as well as a weapon," he said. "Blasting makes roadbuilding easier."
Not to mention unlimited slave labor. Chain-gangs were moving up from the port, clanking along on the verge. Down by the river more were at work on an irrigation canal, its stark geometric shape cutting across the softly patterned fields. Harvest was under way. Part of it was as always, men and some women cutting the yellow barley and wheat with sickles, others following behind to bind the sheaves and stook them in little tripods. In other fields horses drew a machine, its reel whirling as it left a neat trail of reaped grain behind it. Odikweos nodded thoughtfully as he watched it, and saw other fields that had been in grain in years before planted to vines, orchards of fig and apple and plum, green fodder, and other crops he didn't recognize.
"What are those?" he asked.
"The bushes are cotton," Walker said. "They make a fabric like flax,
but easier to work, and finer. The tall stalks are a grain called corn;
it needs watering in your dry summers, but it yields more heavily than
wheat or barley. The low vines
"I see why you've been taking so much of the grain from Sicily," Odikweos said. "Thousands more mouths to feed, and fewer fields in grain."
He nodded to a train of huge four-wheeled wagons rumbling along ahead of them; too large to make way for the kings, and they guided their horses onto the gravelled verge margin of the road to pass them by. Sixteen span of oxen drew each four-ton load.
"What are those called?" Odikweos said, pointing to one wheel. "I've seen the ones in Sicily, but nobody knew the name or the why of them."
"Double-bow springs," Walker replied. "See how they flex? That way, a
jolt from the wheels doesn't harm the wagon's frame as much as it might.
And the body is built flexibly, like a boat
They rode north for most of the morning, speaking of many things, then turning left onto a branch of the road that ran towards the mountains that towered blue in the west, dividing the vale of Sparta from Messina. The traffic was still heavy; they were riding towards Walkeropolis, Walker's Stronghold. The American pointed out features; the stone-lined channel that brought water down from dams in the mountains, the waterwheels, the four furnaces like squat stone fortress-towers, built into the side of a hill so that carts could bring fuel and ore to their tops. Smoke belched out of them, trailing away to the south; there was a deep rumbling sound from the furnaces, an endless clangor of metal on metal from the forges and workshops, the whirring of spinning machines and looms, a clatter and bustle of uncounted folk in the broad gridwork of paved streets.
Not much smell, Odikweos thought, surprised.
This town must be nearly as big as Pylos by now, with rows of new
buildings going up on every hand, yet there was little of the
shit-and-garbage stink you expected in a city. There were even slaves
sweeping up the dung of horses and oxen with broom and pan and
wheelbarrow. Even now, it still seemed odd to see so many male slaves
together. In Walkerpolis they were marked out by the iron collars, and
they were everywhere
There were many other things even stranger
Even shops for bread, the Achaean king thought with astonishment, watching a baker load loaves into the carrying-basket of a woman and take little copper disks in payment. Next door a leatherworker bowed low as a servant of one of Walker's Wolf People lords took delivery of a saddle; beyond that a treadle-powered lathe whirred, turning out the spokes of a wheel.
"One thing that does surprise me, my friend," Odikweos said as they
turned uphill to the palace through elaborate gardens and the mansions
of Walker's own ekwetai. "Is that you took no larger share of the credit
for the war in the lands north of Olympos
The Dolphin was less graceful than her name, a brig of the type that the Nantucket yards had been turning out as the workhorse of foreign commerce since the Year Three. Three hundred tons, three masts, but much tubbier than the Chamberlain or even the Guard schooners modeled on the Bluenose. She bobbed in the lee of the frigate, and her commander came up the rope ladder with a practical swarming motion.
"Permission to come aboard?" she called, with a wave of a salute to the quarterdeck and the streaming ensign on the jack there.
"Permission granted," Alston said. "Captain McReady, isn't it?"
"Candice McReady at your service, Commodore," the merchant skipper said, holding out her hand.
Typical enough, Alston thought. No more than twenty-one, which would have made her all of thirteen at the Event, the twentieth century most likely a fading dream. Most of the new breed were from the younger generation. A stocky brown-haired young woman with a weather-red face and squint-lines around her eyes that made her look older. She wore a floppy canvas hat and a sleeveless jacket of sealskin belted 'round with a cutlass, bowie and flintlock pistol. The ironmongery looked as natural on her as the easy straddled stance she took to meet the ship's roll and the gold hoop in one earlobe. The hand she extended felt rough and dry and competent in Alston's.
The steward brought up coffee. "Thought I was sailing into a fight, ma'am," McReady said, sipping appreciatively. "Heard the cannon. Thought some damned Tartessian poacher needed his butt kicked."
And just came boiling in with all four of your six-pounder brass popguns, Alston thought, nodding. Fairly typical too. The youngsters coming up since the Event were different; not necessarily braver than their parents, but harder-grained. Entirely different attitude towards risk.
Less likely to complain about bad luck, too. They didn't have that 1990's reflex of finding someone to blame when the anvil of fate dropped; contingency-fee lawyers were something they'd left up in the Twentieth. Of course, the attitude had its downside as well; the new breed seemed to be a good deal less shockable, more case-hardened than Alston would have expected or altogether liked.
I must be getting old, she thought. I'm starting to complain about the upcoming generation.
"They do show up here occasionally," Alston agreed aloud.
The Town Meeting had proclaimed the whole of the Western Hemisphere
under the Republic's jurisdiction
"Not this time, though. What crew, where from and what loading?" she went on.
"My third trip this year," McReady said, jerking a thumb backward at
her ship. "My first mate's my mate, my brother and his wife are
quartermaster and sailing master
Alston nodded. "What loading now?"
McReady grinned. "Commodore, right now my cargo is absolute shit."
She grinned more widely still at the raised brows. "Bird-shit. Guano,
fertilizer; from the islands in Saldhana Bay. One hundred ninety tons,
all of it under contract to Brand Farms." She held up a hand, clenched
with the thumb and little finger out as if measuring. "And the price is
just right. Ought to pay off the Town share of our ship. A little other
stuff, hides, horn, ivory
"Ah, the Namib," Alston said. The coast of southwest Africa, not far from where she intended to make landfall. "Any rumors of Tartessian activity there?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact; the locals drew pictures of what looked like a topsail schooner."
Alston scowled slightly; Tartessos favored that design, copied from the ship Isketerol and William Walker had pirated in the Year One.
"Couldn't be sure, though. They are putting in pretty regular further north, from what I hear."
This time the black woman forced her teeth not to grind. Slave-trading, among other things...
"Thank you, Captain McReady," she went on, calm and polite. "Perhaps you could join the flotilla's captains aboard Eagle for lunch. We could use any observations you have on how the Trades are this year."
"Glad to, we're down to salt horse and biscuit," McReady said. "Trades're pretty steady, and further north than usual; haven't been becalmed yet on this trip... I'll get my logs."
Alston gripped her hands behind her back and rose slightly on her toes as the merchant skipper climbed back down the rope ladder into her skiff and pulled back for her ship. The Expeditionary Force was supposed to keep William Walker off-balance, but it was a long-term project. Isketerol was making her nervous in the here-and-now, and she didn't relish being on the far side of the world with so many of the Republic's guns for so long.
God damn William Walker to hell, she thought. If it weren't for him...
"There's always a man like Walker," Swindapa said quietly; Alston started a little. Her partner had learned her moods very well.
Marian Alston nodded. "Fortunately, there's always someone like us, too," she said, her head turning northeastward. Right now the renegade was having things all his own way, off in the lands of Mycenae. Some day...
Her lips showed teeth in what was only notionally a smile.
"There is a lot of gold up there," William Walker went on to the King of Ithaka.
He laughed, looking up to the portico of his house. A row of pillars
marched across it
The Mycenaeans had already had an outpost up north in what he thought
of as Macedonia, a fortified border-station. The locals were still at
the mud-hut stage, but spoke something related to Greek. More important,
he'd remembered where Philip of Macedon
"About a thousand talents a year's worth," he went on. "I'm satisfied with my tenth." A talent was sixty pounds, more or less; call it twenty tons for the total output. Nobody here had ever seen precious metals on that scale before. They were learning about inflation, too, and the benfits and drawbacks of coined money.
"Why?" Odikweos said bluntly. "You planned the war, you found the gold, you built the works that tear it daily from the womb of Gamater."
"One of the things I like about you, my friend," Walker said, "Is that you come right at things."
The Ithacan shrugged. "Paiawon Apollo speaks in words like a serpent in a reedbed, coil upon counter-coil," he said. "But I've always been a better friend of the Gray-Eyed Lady of Wisdom, Athana potnia."
"Let's put it this way. Has all that gold brought peace to Mycenae?"
"As much peace as a piece of fat pork brings to a pack of hounds," Odikweos said. "Mycenae was always a knot of vipers, but now..."
"Exactly. Also, taking only a tenth, I'm not expected to spend men
and goods guarding the mines
"Or for making their men dig in the ground," Odikweos said with a chuckle.
"Exactly, again; what's more, gold can't buy more than the land
produces. Real wealth comes from increasing the yield of men's hands,
and then gaining command of that yield
"Gold for the merchant, silver for the maid;
Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade.
"Good!" laughed the King, sitting in his hall;
--cold iron --shall be Master of them all."
They drew rein before the portico with its green-white stone stairs of lapis lakadaemon. A small form burst through the ranks of guards and servants, followed by another and then a woman in a gown. He recognized Eurykleia, the household's chief nursemaid.
"Dad!" the hurtling bundle cried, and leapt with a trailing mane of white-blond hair. The second just leapt.
"Whoops," Walker said mildly, and caught each under an arm. "Run along, the rest of you, no need for ceremony."
"I'm sorry, lord, they got away
"No problem," Walker said mildly to the nursemaid. "They're eight, and you'd have to put them in a cage like Egyptian baboons to keep them quiet."
The boy and girl wiggled delightedly; they were much of an age, the girl his by an Alban slave who'd died years ago, the boy by his wife Eknonpa. Odikweos grinned himself.
"Plain to see they've got spirit," he said.
"Althea has been misbehaving again, lord," Eurykleia broke in nervously. "And..."
Walker upended the girl. "What is it this time? Bothering your Aunt Alice again? Not safe, little one."
"Sneaking away to watch the warriors practice, lord," the nursemaid said.
"If Harold can do it, why can't I?" the girl pouted. She pronounced it Haaar-alt, like the locals.
"Why not indeed?" Walker said. He looked up at the servant. "If she wants to train with her brother, we'll see to it."
"But lord, it isn't seemly!" the she burst out, as Althea crowed delight.
Walker's face went cold, and the nursemaid looked down, her own face gone pale. "Seemly is what I say to be seemly, Eurykleia. I am the King."
"Yes, lord," she said quietly.
Walker hoisted his son over a shoulder and put the girl on her feet, delivering a swift spanking swat at the same time. "That's for not coming and asking me first," he said at her yelp, and gave her another. "And that's for disobeying Eurykleia. Now both of you run along and mind your manners."
He walked up the stairs. "My friend, we have a good deal to talk about," he said to Odikweos. "So that our children may inherit more than we hold today."
The Ithacan nodded, looking around him. Making mental notes of the improvements, Walker thought.
"Sicily grows dull," he said. "Another man can chase bandits through the hills..." The Achaean paused. "Is that why you sent so many troublesome men to take up lands there?"
"Well," Walker grinned, "it does give them something to do, besides causing me problems."
"You are a man with a mind of many turns," the Greek said admiringly. He looked a little surprised when Walker laughed loud and long. "Troy next?" he went on.
"Troy indeed," Walker said.
"That will bring in the Hittites."
"The worse for them, my friend. The worse for them."
Copyright © 1999 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>